Winner's slice of the pie might be too rich


Beginning with the July 2 meet at Laurel Race Course, every owner who starts a horse in a thoroughbred race at a Maryland mile track will earn at least $100.

The idea might seem revolutionary in a sport that hasn't changed much since many of its rules were written early in the 1900s.

But did track operator Joe De Francis go far enough?

There shouldn't be much argument that the owner of every horse in a race should get paid to compete.

Already some people have suggested this is "socialized racing."

So far, only one other major U.S. track, Monmouth Park, pays money to every participant.

But why shouldn't all tracks pay all owners to run their horses?

Money is bet on every horse that competes in a race. From that money, the state, the track and the horsemen get a percentage. Under the current system, everyone gets a cut of that money except the owner whose horse doesn't get a piece of the purse. In a 12-horse race, only four owners are now paid. That means the other eight owners are running their animals for free.

Why should those owners run their horses for nothing and subsidize everyone else? Every professional ballplayer who suits gets paid to play the game. Why should horse owners be any different?

Under the old tax laws, owners could write off many of their losses. Then the 1986 Tax Reform Act changed the rules. The write-offs that were incentives for people to own horses were taken away. The number of owners, and number of horses, started to dwindle at alarming rates until now at just about every track in the country, there is not only a shortage of horses, but also people to pay their bills.

New incentives are needed to attract owners, not just to stop the exodus of the ones leaving the game. The business, because of the fragility of the animal, is already in the high-risk category. But if every owner can cover at least part of the cost of running his horse in a race, then he has some reason to either jump in the sport or stay in it.

Under the De Francis plan, purses will now be paid back to sixth place instead of fourth.

In addition to that, all other starters would receive a supplementary bonus. In races where the purse is $10,000 or less, all starters after the first six finishers receive $100. From $10,500 to $15,000, the stipend for all starters past sixth place goes to $200. In the $15,500 or more purse category, it's elevated to $300.

So far, so good for De Francis. He's brought Maryland racing into the economic realities of the 1990s.

But then there is the matter of the purse redistribution.

The former plan worked this way.

The first four finishers received a 60-22-12-6 percentage split.

In the new system the first six finishers divide the purse 60-20-10-5-3-2.

Nothing changes for the winners. They still get 60 percent of the pie. It's the 40 percent for the losers that is rearranged. That's where De Francis, and his racing executives, Tim Capps and Larry Abbundi, balked at treading into a brave new world.

Racing is too top-heavy. It pays a small percentage of winners too much of the overall pie.

That might have been fine when racing was a sport where the ultimate objective was to breed the best to the best.

Like it or not, that's no longer the situation. Racing is now a business that needs to produce competitive fields for gamblers to bet on.

Ten percent of horses win, and they get 60 percent of the purse. The other 90 percent of the horses divide 40 percent. Those in the 90 percent category can't exist on that small percentage and expect to stay in business.

Perhaps there was justification for that kind of split when racing had the old tax system serving as a safety net. Now owners need to make money out of their racing ventures.

Instead of reducing the second, third and fourth money, let's take the 5 percent from the winner's total.

This redistribution will make it possible for more people to play the game.

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